Even though we know stress has serious health consequences and can impact our energy, focus, and work performance, many of us still struggle. Food and lifestyle habits can make a significant difference, though. As a dietitian and health coach, I talk about stress with my patients and clients and offer meal and snack suggestions to help them cope. Blood sugar balance is key, as it helps support stable energy and mood, and certain foods have nutrients and compounds in them that help mitigate the effects of stress on the body.
On a stressful day, I’ll often make baked salmon with a side of cooked greens or sardines tossed into a salad—the omega-3 fatty acids in fish have been shown in studies to help offset the effects of stress hormone cortisol and the folate in the greens is important for supporting healthy levels of “pleasure chemical” dopamine.
I reached out to a few of my fellow healthcare providers to find out what they eat and recommend to manage stress.
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN is a Brooklyn based dietitian and nationally recognized nutrition expert. She explains, “The human body may experience stress as a result of many factors, including psychological and systemic stressors. Nourishing ourselves with foods that are rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants have the ability to aid in quelling or down-regulating the body’s stress responses. Foods that act as stimulants within the body can increase the physical manifestations as well as the perception of stress, while foods with anti-inflammatory properties work synergistically to help maintain homeostasis.”
Feller says, “Fruits and vegetables in their whole, minimally processed form with limited added sugars, salts, and synthetic fats are important for the reduction of systemic stress and overall metabolic health. Foods rich in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant, help reduce stress. Additionally, fiber-rich foods promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria that further support appropriate stress responses. My favorite stress-fighting snack would be one serving of spiced nuts with a serving of fruit. For a fiber-rich meal, I love curried chickpeas with dal puri roti and cabbage.”
Dr Uma Naidoo, MD is a Nutritional Psychiatrist, Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and more. She recommends “eating the rainbow” to reap the stress-fighting benefits of the nutrients and antioxidants in colorful fruits and vegetables, which are also high in fiber.
She shares, “Turmeric is my go-to anti-stress food. Curcumin, its active ingredient, decreases anxiety and changes the corresponding brain chemistry, protecting the hippocampus because stress can deactivate the hippocampus. I add it to smoothies, salads, soups and even tea. Always add a pinch of black pepper to activate.” She uses it in a Golden Latte, which she makes with 1 cup macadamia milk, ½ teaspoon ground turmeric, a pinch of black pepper and ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg or cinnamon. “Simply heat all the ingredients minus nutmeg in a saucepan over medium heat for about five minutes and then sprinkle with nutmeg and enjoy! If you like it sweet, add a light drizzle of honey.”
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine expert, IFMCP, DNM, DC, and author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the upcoming book Intuitive Fasting, says, “A lot of the food that makes up the standard American diet — sugar and caffeine — actually perpetuate stress and anxiety.” He explains, “Proper nutrition is necessary to provide your brain and adrenals with the nutrients they need to function optimally especially since a poor diet can contribute to HPA-axis dysfunction and imbalanced levels of your stress hormone, cortisol.”
Dr. Cole emphasizes the importance of healthy fats for hormone health, balanced inflammation levels, and regulated cortisol levels. “Some of the best sources of healthy fats include avocados and wild-caught fish.” For a stress-fighting snack, he loves sweet cherries when they’re in season. “There is a lot of research surrounding their stress-reducing abilities. Cherries actually have a high serotonin content— your ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. Serotonin has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.”
Holistic Psychiatrist Ellen Vora, MD counsels her patients on the connection between food, lifestyle, and mental health. “Getting adequate nutrition sends a signal of abundance to our brain, telling us we have enough of what we need,” she says. “That is calming to the nervous system. Also, stress burns through many micronutrients, such as the B vitamins, so it’s important to replete those nutrients in times of increased stress. It’s always important to eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods. There’s no one food we all need—each of us needs whatever we’re missing. I do think one universal truth is that we’re all helped by keeping our blood sugar stable in times of stress.”
It doesn’t have to be complicated, though. “Sometimes what’s easy is what’s best. In my household, if we feel our blood sugar crashing in between meals, we take a spoonful of almond butter.”
It’s also important to look beyond simply what we’re eating, she adds. “We need to start thinking about what we read, watch, and hear like food. It gets into us and affects us, so we want to make conscious choices with our information diet.”